Issue 25: Shara McCallum
from No Ruined Stone
The suite of poems that follow is an excerpt of a forthcoming book-length verse sequence, No Ruined Stone. With one exception, the poems here are in the voice of 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns. In the winter of 2015, on my first visit to Scotland, I learned a lesser-known story about Burns: late in the summer of 1786, he had actively planned to emigrate from Scotland to Jamaica, to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation on the island. “Bookkeeper” in this context was a misnomer, as the men who held those position were responsible for daily overseeing and managing the work performed by enslaved Africans.
As a lover of Burns’ poems, I carried that story of his near-migration around with me, like a sore or gap in the mouth one’s tongue keeps finding, and it provoked a question: What would have happened had he gone? Such an interrogation of history most often falls to novelists to pursue. But being a poet, I felt compelled to ask poems to do the work of responding.
Inexorably, that first question led only to others and returned me to some of my earliest and ongoing obsessions and vexations: with the concept of Nature, the Pastoral, and the contemporary Ecopoem, Romanticism, the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Enlightenment, women’s rights, struggles to abolish slavery, miscegenation and passing, absent fathers and mothers and countries, mental illness, migration and exile.
No Ruined Stone, the resulting book-length sequence, offers a speculative account of the past, voiced primarily by a fictive Burns, who migrates to Jamaica, and by one of his descendants, a granddaughter and white-presenting black woman who migrates to Scotland in the early 19th-century. The story is neither true nor autobiographical. But it is tied to truths of my personal and family narrative as well as the foundational narrative of Jamaica, the country I am from and one birthed by the tectonic meeting of the Americas, Africa, and Europe.
from No Ruined Stone
My life reminded me of a ruined temple.
1. River Ayr
Wending in its winding,
nothing so fickle, unreliable
resides in us as conscience,
proving itself unworthy
of halting the course of passion.
In Alloway, the river ran
past the mill on its way to sea,
and I, a boy, wandered
to-and-fro along its banks.
Wending in its winding,
undeterred by rock or stone,
as the current surged, urged
the water forward, so I
flung myself into that force.
2. The Hour of Dream
In the space before dawn
wafting with wind
across the window’s transom
in silvered light her sweet
sonsie face graces
my sleeping and
on waking she is
the sun settling trees
back into their rightful
selves on waking
she is all
that might obliterate
for a moment
3. Dear Gilbert,
The novelty of a Poet
in my obscure situation has raised me
to some height. When talk turns to Slavery,
arguments for its brutal necessity
prevail, and I sit at the table of plenty,
bite back my tongue. Our men,
transplanted to rocky soil, struck
a Faustian bargain. How could they
turn against themselves? And I,
who find myself among the rubble,
am only a rhyming Mason, flatterer
seeking my name through poetry,
armament against my further ruin.
I was born to the class that labours.
I toil under this sun yet cannot meet
its lease. The few pounds I clear,
I submit to you, dear brother,
for those entrusted to my care.
I know full well I am insufficient
to this or any other earthly task.
Long having studied myself, I ken
pretty exactly what ground
I stand upon. In serving the Muse,
I have often forsaken the Life.
4. For Promised Joy
Suffer me to want her.
Suffer me to ask for nothing
but laughter, hers filling
the drafts and breathing
hollows of my room.
Each time she enters, suffer me
to be suffused in scent
of her, my eyes condemned
by sight of her. Suffer me
to ask love to dwell
in a place not meant
for love’s habitation,
in vain to take
what is mine and not mine,
to theft from brutality beauty,
without hesitation, without
thought of consequence.
Suffer me to face love’s cruelty
that knows no boundary.
On this island, distinction between
planter and bookkeeper wanes. Home,
or its ghost, binds us, an apparition
holding powerful sway. Bard,
they ask me to ferry Scotia
in tunes increasingly played
in drawing rooms from Port Antonio
to Kingston, salving exile’s wounds.
Bard, in truth my name has made
a small noise across this island,
in Masonic halls, at planter’s balls.
My life’s wish has only ever been
to make a song the equal to Nature,
to the stories of our heroic countrymen
who sheltered in every den and dell.
In Jamaica, if they bid me sing,
am I not all I ever wanted to be?
6. Douglas’s Reply
They are good for nothing but toiling and fucking.
Don’t talk to me of the inalienable rights
of man. These are not men. The proof
of their brutish nature? Tell me: who
of our lot could withstand such bestial labour
under this punishing sun? Who of our women
would squat in fields to give birth,
like the lowliest of animals, or take the whip
but be unbridled in bed? You’ve had
your taste of her, choosing to forget
what was from the start inevitable. You think
you are the first to be pricked by regret,
standing here, idiotically spouting off
of love? Telling me you’ve taken the liberty,
nae the trouble, to write my brother? Good God,
you are more stupid, man, than even I
imagined. Of course he took pity on you.
My brother lives in the manner I secure for him
and wants to know nothing of the how,
the sacrifices exacted daily. My brother
believes he is good. And I let him. I am who
stops his fiction from fraying, who keeps
his whole damn world spinning.
Like so many of our countrymen
at a remove, he has turned soft and warms
to the notion these Africans have souls.
The prigs back home grow fatter and fatter
on sugar, never stepping foot on this island,
never knowing what the likes of you and I
endure. Yet they think they can legislate
to us what is right and wrong? Now,
when we are so far gone, now they are ready
to address the moral cause. Did you really
expect whatever reply my brother sent
to sway me? Womanish sentimentality
has always been your undoing, Burns. Lofty ideals
may find audience in drawing rooms
of the few. But ask yourself: what have idle
or even impassioned debates ever amounted to,
besides self-righteous piety? Better yet,
ask your drinking companions, for all this talk
of rights, what they do with their nights.
Where do you think these mulattoes and reds
running all about have come from, and what
exactly would happen to our way of life
were every mongrel and half-breed saved?
I ken the desire to do right by your family
back in Ayshire—though by that measure
I’m afraid you’ve also missed the mark.
But to entertain or scheme to buy the wench
or this bairn you believe yours? That is right madness.
Burns, a way out you could not buy yourself.
7. Dear Gilbert,
Darkness and Despair loiter,
training me in their sights. Once more,
I have been transported
by the thought I could say farewell
to the pain and weariness of life.
A hundred times I’ve wished
I could resign it as an officer
resigns commission. But this letter
from you has brought me back.
Our Mason brothers have taken up
the cause of this poor poet,
there is talk of a second printing.
Can it be true, the dream possible
in exile? That I might glimmer
into futurity? Or is it more madness
to think poverty and obscurity
are not my only path ahead, pride
again deceiving me,entreating me
believe I may be remembered
through my creations? These creatures
have long been my sole, my only
faithful companion, brother. Here,
as elsewhere, they are counterpoise
to a world I’ve never known
as anything but alien.
8. Tam O’ Shanter
In the wee hours I was returning
from a Mason gathering where I’d been bousing.
Perchance the whiskey or rain and wind
that rose up round me, howling, muddled
my brain, but past and present agreed
to an exchange. I was carried over sea
back to Alloway, my horse and I passing
the auld Kirkyard, moving at such a pace
to gain the key-stone of the bridge.
Something pursued us that night. I knew
not what exactly, but recalling evil spirits
cannot follow a body over water,
I spurred my mare to full-frothed gallop,
and she brought us clattering across the river.
Zig-zagging a path the rest of our journey,
we arrived once more at Springbank,
where I set pen to page to recount this tale
I enclose, dear brother, the story of our hero
Tam and the fateful night he met with bogles
(duppies, here, the same creature) on the road.
Poor Tam, on his misbegotten ride, could nae
tether time nor tide. Benighted traveller,
he was nae wise yet saw—whatever danger
may be in plunging forward,
there is ever more in turning back.
From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of six books published in the US and UK, including No Ruined Stone (Alice James Books, US, and Peepal Tree Press, UK - forthcoming 2021), a verse sequence based on an alternate account of history and Scottish poet Robert Burns’ near migration to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation. Her previous book, Madwoman, received the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry and the 2018 Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club.
La historia es un Cuarto/History is a Room, an anthology of poems selected from across her six books and translated and introduced by Adalber Salas Hernandez, will be published in 2021 by Mantis Editores in Mexico. She is a Liberal Arts Professor of English at Penn State University and on the faculty of the Pacific University Low-Residency MFA Program.
Copyright © 2021 by Shara McCallumr, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.